Translation Please

'It's a Platform,' He Kept Saying

2/28/2011 10:26 AM

Last week, over a span of two briefings and four interviews, one word came up over and over and over. Twenty eight times, to be specific.

Maybe this one’s popping up with unsettling regularity in your world, too: Platform. Conversationally, it emerges like this (from last week’s batch of notes):

“You have to have it across multiple platforms to get the scale you need.”

“We’re going to pre-integrate from APIs from other platforms.”

“It’s a platform abstraction layer.”

What? “Platform” elicits the same kind of glazeover as “edge,” as in “the edge of the network.” The definition depends on who’s talking. (Pretty sure my head will explode upon first mention of “the edge of the platform.”)

So let’s start in the tactile world. Here, in the (blessed!) physical, non-digital world, a platform is a purpose-built, elevated structure, for the purpose of displaying something to an audience.

In the digital world, platforms are much more amorphous. Everybody has one.

Depending on a person’s knowledge precinct, a platform might be a grouping of software products. Or it could be a reference to particular groupings of stuff - gadgets plumbed for Android; encoders that ingest a stream of video, then spit it out in 20 different formats; or servers that perform a particular function (”our VOD platform”).

In cable, “platform” tends to be a sweeping reference to every back-office function that used to be associated with specific, “siloed” services, but are now linked to work together, with the formerly proprietary stuff weeded out.

Getting your head around “platform” makes more sense when viewed with historical context: Cable grew town by town, franchise by franchise. Gear varied, one system to the next. Digital video arrived with its own set of vendors and techniques. Broadband, while digital, grew up with a different set of vendors and techniques. Likewise for billing systems, service activation and device provisioning.

Without “platforms,” adding a new feature to any service meant phoning one of four billing providers, putting the feature on its development list - then waiting 18 months. It meant working within “the duopoly” of set-top conditional-access systems, to move it through that twist of secured instructions.

Ultimately, platforms represent the Big Unification that will get new services and apps to market much more swiftly. They’re the software bridges that span all of the decisions made before operator and vendor consolidation. For now, though, and like “edge,” when you come upon a platform, it helps to halt the conversation and ask for a definition.
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Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at translationplease.com or multichannel.com/blog.

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